The Chris Busch Threshing Bee

Ypsilanti, Michigan

It would seem rather trite to describe the Chris Busch Threshing
Bee as something special and unique since there are so many other
thresher reunions of a somewhat special nature that are held
throughout the summer months in other parts of the country.
However, there is a refreshing difference in the format and the
environmental locale of the Busch Reunion that gives it, among
other things, the quality of a big family reunion. This basic
difference is primarily due, I think, to the wholesome country-home
atmosphere and the warm friendly spirit that abounds so
predominantly at the Busch ranch.

The great majority of the other reunions are held on a county
fair grounds or in large city parks, and, due to such unnatural and
offbeat locations, they tend to imitate professional show business
by featuring a variety of stunts, some silly if not completely
ridiculous, which require a type of rigorous and unnatural
performance that is entirely foreign and unrelated to grain
threshing. And worse of all, by performing such foolish antics the
present time old equipment is subjected to stresses and strains
that were never anticipated by the designers and manufacturers of
threshing machinery.

The basic idea and main purpose motivating the Busch Reunion is
to recreate and duplicate, as nearly as practicable, without any
item of the inconsistent show ‘whoopala’ being involved,
the threshing operation that was current in the Northwest before
the combine came into general use to displace the steam threshing
rigs.

The Busch Threshing Bee is held in the heart of the great
wheat-producing area of the Northwest, locally known as the
‘Palouse Country’. While this section is mostly confined in
the southeastern part of Washington, some of it does stretch over
into parts of Idaho. The Busch Ranch is in Whitman County which is,
according to government statistics, the greatest wheat-producing
county in the U.S.

The Busch barn yard, and its immediate surroundings, is a
veritable museum for some thirty, or more, old steam traction
engines in various stages of repair. However, a few of these old
steam engines are in a practicable operational condition. They may
need a shim here and there to take up lost motion; a few nuts to
betightened;possibly a new gasket or two; stuffing boxes freshly
packed and made steam tight; and, with the required water level in
the boiler assured and all moving parts properly oiled, these old
engines are again in prime running order to belch smoke from their
stacks and be in active service as soon as the steam pressure
mounts up to the working pressure.

The Busch Reunion actually starts in a rather unofficial manner
about two, or more, days before the main event. A couple or more
house trailers will move in and set up living quarters in the back
yard, while others will come with bed rolls to establish sleeping
quarters in the barn. This is the ‘advance guard’ that
arrives to ‘slick-up’ and condition the old engines that
are to operate; to get the grain separators in proper working
order; and to get the cook wagon cleaned and in a perfect sanitary
condition, together with all the other accessories that are to
function during the main event. During these preparatory days many
interested visitors will stop to stroll among the old engines, and
to reminisce about the ‘good old days when Steam was
King.’

The first real official act of the Busch Threshing Bee takes
place on a Saturday evening, preceding the main event. This is one
of the regular meetings of the Western Steam Fiends Association and
is, at this time, held in the spacious gymnasium of the Colton High
School. At this meeting the first item on the agenda is an
elaborate banquet sponsored by a group of local high school pupils.
Following, there is a talk by a speaker, or moving pictures are
shown, and finally there is an election of officers including a
discussion and disposal of all other pertinent business matters.
The Western Steam Fiends Association is unique in that it is the
only association of its kind, I know of whereby each member
receives a printed roster of the membership, together with
addresses in addition to the usual membership card and button. In
all the other thresher associations one can feel very much alone,
for he has no way of knowing the name and addresses of his fellow
members.

The next day, the big eventful day, activity starts early at the
Busch home. The engine men are also ‘on the job’ early and
have their engines ‘all tinkered up’ to be in a smooth
running order for the curious inspection and appraisement of the
eager crowd that is soon to appear.

Hardly before faint wisps of steam becomes visible around the
engines, the earliest visitors start converging at the entrance
from opposite directions. At the same time there is also some
evident and unmistakable first signs of activity taking place in
the cook wagon.

By ten o’clock cars are arriving from both directions in
such numbers that they ‘bunch up’ to form a solid phalanx
at the entrance. A sheriff and two deputy sheriffs are overly busy
keeping the dense traffic unscrambled while it is being funneled,
single file, into the driveway and on into the parking lots. By now
several steam engines become activated and, during the spasmodic
‘limbering-up’ trials, they belch forth intermittent clouds
of smoke and steam as a convincing evidence of their ability to be
‘up and going’ again. At this time one side of the cook
wagon opens up and a line of hungry patrons form to be served tasty
plate lunches. In a short time the ‘lunch line’ becomes
quite long, but the efficient cook-wagon crew work hard to
‘melt the long line down’ to normal size by serving lunches
with an efficient performance comparable to an assembly-line
precision and speed.

About twelve o’clock a major lineup of all the operational
equipment takes place to form a grand parade to the wheat stacks in
the near-by field. Chris with his favorite Minneapolis engine,
hitched to a Case separator, heads the parade which is followed by
a stocky team of horses pulling a Case portable engine. Also in the
line-up is an undermounted Avery engineered by Ray Campbell and an
old return-flue Buffalo-Pitts engineered by Ernie Burnett, Sr.
(Ernie, Jr. could not be present), and while the entire line-up
moves slowly out to the stacks of grain, an eager and lively crowd
follows closely in the rear to make up the tail end of the parade.
It must be noted while threshing, the engines are fired with straw
which requires a special technique on the part of the fireman if he
is going to maintain a proper head of steam. There was also in the
field, in addition to the 1912 Minneapolis straw burner, a six
horsepower portable Case engine which was belted to a second
old-time Case separator, an outfit that also did a bit of
threshing.

A steady line of cars continued to arrive until quite late in
the afternoon and it was estimated that something like 5,000
spectators were more than anxious and extremely interested to see
an old time threshing demonstration enacted in an realistic
fashion. As the day drew to a close it marked the end of a climatic
event the fourteenth annual Busch Threshing Bee that has again
exhibited of what was, at one time, a typical method of threshing
grain wherever grain was raised, and now a method of threshing that
has long since become obsolete as a necessary link in grain
production. May future Busch Threshing Bees continue to keep alive
the glorious memories of those days when the steam traction engine
and the grain separator were a dominant factor in the harvest
activity.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment